The Bottle


“The Footprints you leave behind will influence others.  There is no person who at some time, somewhere, somehow, does not lead another.”

– Anonymous


It must have lain on the forest floor since before I was even born. Clear, bluish glass, with the remnants of a cork still lodged in the neck, the little bottle glittered as it caught a stray ray of sunshine. It was all alone, on its side, on a bed of damp, green moss. The bottle looked as if someone had placed it there on display. Had I not stopped to check my compass, most likely I would have walked on by without ever seeing the little artifact.

“Hey, Neal, come check this out,” I yelled ahead to my companion.

Neal stopped, turned back toward me and asked, “What’s up?”

“There’s an old bottle lying here. Looks like a liniment or ointment bottle of some kind.”

He turned and came back through the brush to where I was standing to take a look at my find. As I waited I became aware of the heady scent around me. The warm afternoon air had loosened the resins in the cedar needles and the fragrance of the trees wafted through the air.

We were at the end of a great day of fishing on one of our favorite stretches of water and had started back to our truck following a well-used moose trail that paralleled the stream. In all the years we had been fishing this particular area, we had never come across any sign that some other person had visited there. But here, today, was the evidence that we were not the only ones to ever be on this particular creek.

We knew the area had been logged over in the early part of the century, so humans had been through here before us. However, nature had done her part in reclaiming the land and most traces of habitation had been swallowed up by the forest.

The route into the creek followed the remains of an old winter road that had been cut years ago by some lumberman. Now, the only indication that it had existed there was that the brush along this route was shorter than the surrounding vegetation. Animals had adopted the old road and used it as a trail of their own, keeping a rudimentary path open through the tag alder.

But before even getting to the remnants of the winter road, we had had to drive three miles along an ancient railbed that the folks at the forestry department had told us was impassible. It was from that end point that we walked a mile along the game trail to where it crossed the flowage.

I picked up the bottle and lifted it to the sunlight. Any semblance of a label had long ago weathered away. But held that way I could read the raised letters that were on the flat face of the bottle. Except for the embossed lettering, there was no identification on the vessel.

“It says, Foley & Company, Chicago, on the front,” I said to Neal. “Nothing else. Looks like there’s a waxy residue still inside though.”

I handed the relic to Neal, who turned it slowly in his hands as he inspected our find.

I have said many times that the trips to the Arrowhead to fish for brook trout are really about more than just the fish. While tramping through what we think is a “trackless wilderness” to gain access to a secluded portion of a river or stream, we sometimes make a surprise discovery that turns our trek for fish into something more.

“Wow. I wonder how long this thing has been here?”

It was a rhetorical question, but one that made us pause. On many trips through the Arrowhead in the past, we had come across artifacts left by others. But those relics usually were at the end of an old road or trail. The places we had stumbled upon before were areas where groups of individuals had resided. Companies of lumberjacks, small settlements of people or families homesteading would leave their obvious mark on the land. While the forest had reclaimed some of the land they had lived on, it would be apparent that people had once been there. Finding the outlines of buildings, piles of discarded materials or equipment that was left behind because of wear or disrepair had been not uncommon for us.

Finding this bottle was different. It was lying on its side, under a thick stand of cedar trees about twenty feet from the bank of the stream. There was no evidence that the water ever got high enough to wash this bottle back into the forest. We looked around and scuffed up the surface of the forest floor in any area that appeared as if it could be an old dump of some sort, but found nothing man-made. Further searching showed us that there was no trail, road or remnant of either in proximity to this site. There were some remnants of pine stumps showing the flat surface that indicated they had been cut and not the victims of some windstorm or other natural catastrophe. The wood that remained in them was rotten and crumbled easily to the touch.

Tag alder and thorn apple grew close to the edge of the water and slowly gave way to a stand of cedars inland. Actually, large doesn’t do the cedars justice. They were enormous. If Neal and I stood on either side of one we could just stretch our arms far enough to touch fingertips as we reached around them. These giants were easily 60 to 70 years old if not more. They must have been saplings, if there at all, when the bottle was dropped on the forest floor.

According to the history books, this region was at the peak of logging operations in 1900, and most people knew that Minnesota was running out of pine. The statistics indicate that at least 20,000 lumberjacks were working in the pineries along with half that number of horses. Alger-Smith Company narrow gauge railroads ran from Duluth to Tow Island Lake and transported the logs from the waterways and landings to their sawmills in Duluth. When the largest white pine lumber company in the world at that time, the Rainy River Lumber Company in Virginia, Minnesota, closed its doors in 1929, logging pretty much came to a close here.

The companies retrieved the rails from the old railbeds and used them as they moved north and west in pursuit of white pine. They left the old spikes and rail ties behind. Many were covered when the right-of-ways were graded over for the roads that now provide access to Cramer and Finland. But others were abandoned, and along with the cleared land, were reclaimed by the forest. The philosophy of the plow following the ax did not work well here since the land was much too poor for sustainable farming. Second growth forest spread through the clearings, and sturdy tag alder sprouted up through the old road beds.

Those overgrown byways provided access to the streams in the area, and I had walked many of them with Doivo when he showed me the secret places to fish for brook trout. That was how I first became aware of the stream we had fished today.

When you stand among the old cedars and ponder the size of the northern forest, you can feel very insignificant. It’s as though the forest has swallowed you, and for a moment you can grasp the power of nature. It reminds you that the earth doesn’t belong to mankind, mankind belongs to the earth. Regardless of human’s attempts to tame her, in the end nature always wins.

But, what was the story behind the old bottle? How did it come to rest in this remote place? Who dropped or threw it here so long ago? Although this makes for some entertaining discussion, there seldom is any specific proof that other people have been there. But this time there was.

We can only speculate at who the person was, but that is part of what makes trips to the Arrowhead so intoxicating. Our best guess is a lumberjack or timber cruiser who passed through during their day’s labor. Humans wandered these forests when the waterways and game trails were the only routes through them. Yet there are times when, for just a moment, Neal and I have wondered if anyone else has ever stood in the exact same place that we are then standing. At those moments it feels as if the wilderness has swallowed us, just as it has swallowed the stories of those who came before us.

I thought about the difference in how we viewed this land. Neal and I fished the waters and marveled at the beauty and the strength of the native brookies. We would pause, occasionally, to drink in the magnificence and solitude of the wilderness. Our counterpart, the bottle owner, probably paused to occasionally touch up the edge on his ax or to clean the pitch from the teeth of his saw blade, then, not to waste the daylight, get back to his labor. He was here to do a job; the white pines meant income to him and his family if he had one.

If it had been a lumberjack, he would have been here during the winter months when the ground was frozen hard. The going through the brush would be a bit easier but the days could be bitterly cold. A cruiser, on the other hand, would come through during the spring or summer and have to deal with other issues. The heat and the thick growth would be a couple, but the insects would probably be the worst. Could this bottle be some potion to help ward off the blood-thirsty attack of the mosquitoes and black flies? It might have provided a more soothing ointment than the balsam sap and bacon grease combination that the early loggers slathered on themselves to slow down the bug onslaught.

“Boy, if that bottle could talk,” I mused.

Neal nodded in agreement.

It was just a small glass bottle, and it probably had a fascinating story behind it; but we were never to know what that was. It began its journey in Chicago, but now it lay on a bed of moss and was a part of the mystic of the Arrowhead. Neal handed it to me, and I placed it back on the moss pillow where it rested for those many years. There are some treasures that you can take from the forest, but there are others that should be left where they lie. A quick look around, and we walked away.

To us, that small container will remain another indication of man’s attempt to shape and domesticate this wild area. We feel fortunate that places such as this still exist and have not been tamed. These locations have a certain sanctity and purity to them. The price we pay to be able to use these places is simple. When we leave those sites, the only reminders that people have been there are the old cut marks, the tracks we may have made and an occasional small bottle.



Rudy Senarighi was born and raised in Cloquet, Minnesota. He attended the University of Minnesota at Duluth. Rudy taught junior high school in Superior, Wisconsin. He moved to Door County, Wisconsin and was employed by the Sturgeon Bay Schools for 25 years as their middle school guidance counselor. He currently does educational training and consulting work. He spends his leisure time gardening, reading, running, fishing and writing.